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Mobile home owners need fair treatment

About 30 years ago, developers created an innovative lifestyle that has proved to be exceptionally successful here: rental mobile home parks. In addition to the early "trailers," larger manufactured homes are available that compare favorably with site-built homes. Typically, a park owner rents lot space to residents (who purchase their manufactured home) and provides certain services and amenities.

This alternative has great appeal to retirees because mobile homes are less expensive than site-built homes and require less upkeep. The parks provide local recreational facilities and security features, and they generate an atmosphere where people look out for each other because of a real sense of community.

It is ironic that many park residents who played by the rules all their lives find what they thought was a good housing arrangement has become a nightmare.

Starting about 1980, greedy park owners have been exploiting ineffective regulations. Lot rents have increased yearly, far beyond the cost-of-living index, and services sometimes have been reduced. These unregulated rent increases skim great profits to (often) out-of-state park owners while undermining our local economy and causing hardship to many mobile home owners on small, fixed incomes.

This is not an isolated circumstance. It affects all who live here, not just mobile home owners. Pinellas County has about 300 mobile home parks, more than any other county in Florida. The economic impact of mobile home owners has a ripple affect on our whole region.

The state Legislature has the authority to regulate mobile home parks. Many legislators have been indifferent because they have few or no mobile home parks in their districts. The state Legislature, the Florida Manufactured Housing Association and the state courts constantly have helped the park owners run mobile home parks like land barons in the old colonial days. Appraisers evaluate mobile home parks by the revenue they generate. With each (unjustified) rental increase, the value of the land increases. The mobile home owner is in a Catch-22 situation. The benefit is all one-sided, with the burden carried by mobile home owners who are less able to bear the cost. Even the state's Department of Business Regulation has no enforcement ability to give the captive mobile home owner a fair shake.

The result has been devastating. Many on Social Security have been unable to pay the increased rent and have sold at giveaway prices, or in some cases, just abandoned their investment.

The media often respond to emergency situations, but the media have given very little attention to the causes of the slow, grinding destruction of a lifestyle that affects millions of people in Florida.

There are two possible resolutions to this dilemma that could give fairness to all parties concerned.

Eliminate Florida State Law 723.004, which gives sole authority for mobile home regulation to the Legislature. This would give local government the option to regulate mobile home parks.

Or require the state Department of Business Regulation to establish a review board to hear complaints and make mandatory arbitration decisions.

Mobile home owners must take more responsibility for their survival and make their views known to our legislators in Tallahassee.

The Federation of Mobile Home Owners of Florida must be more aggressive in lobbying the legislators and in marshaling mobile home owners to put pressure on legislators.

Others (non-mobile home owners) in Pinellas County who do not want major raids on county welfare resources can lobby legislators for fair treatment of mobile home owners.

The park owners and mobile home manufacturers obviously have influenced legislators with their PAC monies. The judicial system still protects the rights of the landlord, a carryover from our English heritage. But, if people stand up for their rights by being vocal and visible, we can achieve fair treatment and an end to mobile home owners being victimized. We will all benefit from a shared prosperous economy.

The mobile home owner is an orphan surrounded by sharks. Let us change the rules and help everyone win.

Leo Mazur is a mobile home owner living in a rental mobile home park in St. Petersburg. He is legislative representative of District 2-A of the Florida Mobile Home Owners Association. Guest columnists write their views on subjects they choose, which are not necessarily the opinions of this newspaper.